Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Bill Kolb
Memphis, Tennessee
April 11, 1999

Second Sunday of Easter

Is Doubt Always a Bad Thing?
The Rev. William A. Kolb

Gospel: John 20:19-31

Well, you can’t believe everything you hear, right? I mean, that’s just the way things are, right? Take for example, biblical figures. Sometimes it says one thing about them in scripture, but the culture and its religions might tell a different and inaccurate story.

Take, for example, Job. This man is known as an Old Testament person of great patience --of the greatest patience, especially under affliction. You have heard and so have I, "oh, he’s got the patience of Job!!" Well, that is not the way I understand it. Job is a believer who questions God and complains about what is happening to him. You will remember that Job had worked hard, been faithful to all of his commitments, especially his major commitment, to God. Suddenly Job has a streak of bad fortune that would make a mountain crack. His wife dies, his fortune is wiped out, and he breaks out in boils. He has solicitous friends and neighbors coming to him day and night asking, among other obnoxious questions, what he has done so wrong as to earn such a string of disasters.

Finally, he loses it. He complains and protests. So much so that God has to say to this child of his, God has to say, "who do you think you are, and who do you think I am???" Actually that’s a paraphrase ---what God is actually quoted by those who recorded this history of the bond between Job and Yahweh as saying, is, "Where were YOU when I made the earth? What were YOU doing when the seas were formed?" (Another paraphrase but much closer to the original.) Job had forgotten that God is the Creator and that he, Job, is but a creature.

Or take the subject of today’s Gospel, Thomas, known throughout the world and throughout the ages as "Doubting Thomas." Now that title suggests to me that there are at least two underlying assumptions here: one, that Thomas was more of a doubter than anyone else who was involved in this part of the Good News, and two, that doubt is bad.

Well, let’s look at those. Those who see Thomas as THE doubter of the ages should consider the men who, when told by excited women that they had seen Jesus’ tomb and it was empty, had doubted it. Or perhaps they should recall that Peter, the "rock upon which the Church was founded," had to go to the tomb to see for himself when told about the resurrection. Most of all, the suggestion that nobody else had major doubts is shot down by the Evangelist Luke, when he recounts the scene of Jesus’ appearance to the Apostles, locked in a room in fear on Easter night (this is the appearance that Thomas missed):
"...they were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said to them, ëWhy are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’" Later, Luke observes, " their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering."

So I think it is fair to suggest that Thomas gets a bad rap as the major doubter of the ages.

Now the second piece of Thomas’ reputation that seems to be negative is that the doubt that he speaks, about whether or not Jesus has actually risen from the grave, is a bad thing.

Doubt is not always a bad thing. It shows concern, it shows interest and it shows honesty. If Thomas, rather than wanting proof, had said instead, "So? So what??" when told of the resurrection, then I can see where he would have the reputation of being faithless. But doubt, by itself, often indicates that the doubter wants very much to believe but is afraid to. Doubt leads to questioning, which can lead to deep faith and indicates that our faith is not fragile, not just based on what we were told as children and accepted "whole cloth." A German saying goes, "To believe everything is too much; to believe nothing is not enough."

Doubting is a sign of caring. If I don’t care, you can tell me men from the moon visited you last night during your prayers and I will say, "that’s nice." But if I care, if I care passionately, I will perhaps ask, "Really? What did they look like? Did you really see men from the moon? I can’t believe it!" Which translates into, I want to believe it. I would like to believe that wanting to have faith is a form of faith.

One of Thomas’ great virtues was that he absolutely refused to say that he understood what he did not understand, or that he believed what he did not believe. There was an uncompromising honesty about him: he would never still his doubts by pretending they did not exist.

By inviting Thomas to touch him and feel his wounds, Jesus, I think, is approving Thomas’ questions, because he knows they arise from an honest doubt that can and often does lead to faithful commitment. And, because Thomas doubted and was satisfied, it becomes possible for us who have not seen the Risen Lord physically, it becomes possible for us to believe. Remember too, that it was Thomas, according to the Evangelist John, who told the other Apostles when Jesus was about to go to Bethany because of Lazarus’ grave state, "Let us also go that we may die with him," a great statement of faith and commitment.

For a lot of us, I think, it is not a question of whether or not there is a God as much as it is what kind of God do we have, what can we expect of God, are our expectations of God about the reality of God or about our own desires?

When you think of it, to believe the Gospel is to believe something fantastic, as in a fantasy. Of all the people you have known who have died, not one, I daresay, has risen from the dead, physically. Yet we are to believe that Jesus rose physically from the grave, from death to physical life. We would like to believe, we yearn to believe, but it is clearly understandable that we might have a doubt or two, perhaps until we see and experience evidence of resurrection in our own lives, or in the lives of those around us.

Helen Keller, who was blind from birth but who accomplished great things and who, to this moment, is a courageous model for all who have to live with a significant handicap,said this about doubt:
"It need not discourage us if we are full of doubts. Healthy questions keep faith dynamic. Unless we start with doubts we cannot have a deep-rooted faith. He who has a faith which is not to be shaken has won it through blood and tears -- has worked his way from doubt to truth as one who reaches a clearing through a thicket of brambles and thorns."

The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson, who lived through most of the 19th century, said, "There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds..." And one George MacDonald said this: "Doubt is the hammer that breaks the windows clouded with human fancies, and lets in the pure light."

The patience that was attributed to Job is not always a virtue: when a question or even a protest to God is in our heart and mind and soul, it may be time to speak up. God is God. (Pardon the sexist phrasing, but:) God is a big Guy; he can take it. And God doesn’t take umbrage or offense. If you and I are in a good trusting relationship, then it is in fact important to the maintenance of that high-quality bond that we be honest with each other when something is bothering one of us.

So it was with Job in his questioning of God; so it was with Thomas. These men of passion and love of the Lord, are inspiration and reassuring proof that doubt, when it comes, does not have to be a negative; it can be a tool used in the building of a personal and real faith.

Copyright 1999 Calvary Episcopal Church

Gospel: John 20:19-31
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (NRSV)

[back to top]




Copyright ©1999-2006